Chain Gang Elementary by Jonathan Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What happens when a stay-at-home dad with demons in his past takes the position of PTO president (and soccer coach) at his son's elementary school? Why, Machiavellian plots, shocking betrayals, a kinky affair, grand larceny, spying, bodies being unburied (literally!) and gun play, of course.
Author Jonathan Grant has taken a crew of Anytown stock characters and set them down in a suburban twilight zone of school year craziness. He eases the reader into this story so skillfully that it all seems completely plausible, not to mention hugely entertaining, when it all veers off into a wild and darkly comic bad trip of a climax.
There is Estelle Rutherford, queen bee and principal, ruler for life it seems, and not about to let one bit of her primary school empire slip away. And by the way, she would like the PTO to buy her a Persian carpet and cherry wood furniture for her office, thank you very much!
There are the two apparently CIA-trained counselors she hires to extract usable secrets out of her enemies' children, so that she can ruin them.
There is Stan, a rumpled rabble rouser whose mission in life is to promote No-TV Week each year. He takes this mission *very* seriously.
There is Teresa, the married former exotic dancer turned PTO treasurer, who has eyes for her PTO president.
And there is Richard Gray, at the center of all of this, taking on, almost accidentally, the mantle of office. Richard has a stale marriage, a son he loves dearly, and an urge to Do The Right Thing. Naturally, this embroils him in every horror a sleepy suburb has to offer, and if his obsessions, a vindictive principal, or his sexy treasurer don't do him in, then the flying bullets might.
"Chain Gang Elementary" is darkly funny, entertaining, well-written, and has a great deal of heart as well. One of my favorite things about the book was how Grant shows how a teacher known variously as "Bullfrog Eyes" or "Mz Ebonics" turns out to be not only the best teacher in the school, but the bravest.
My quibbles with this book are small. Richard's wife, Anna Lee, makes a Frigidaire seem toasty. I wanted to know what brought them together in the first place, but there is really nothing about that in the story. A paragraph or brief flashback would have sufficed. My other quibble is easy to fix. Mr. Grant, would you please write another book with Teresa the sexy treasurer in it, as Joshilyn Jackson did with a side character who got her own novel in "Backseat Saints"? It's a small thing to ask. It will only take a year. What could go wrong?
I recommend "Chain Gang Elementary." I'm glad I got the chance to read it.
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For another review of this same book, click HERE to read Mama Zen's thoughts on "Chain Gang Elementary." Unlike me, she did not need hand puppets and remedial reading classes in order to sound out the sense of it.